The Shared Emotions of Customers and Employees

  • By Jonathan Hartley
Meter with faces showing different emotions

Customers and frontline retail employees exchange a contagion, and it’s not only on the cash they handle.

Associate Professor of Marketing Daniel Korschun and co-authors examined the mechanism through which familiar customer and employee pairs influence one another’s emotional state as they form a relationship. They named this tendency of pairs to undergo a similar emotional response to events the shared frontline experience.

Prior research to date has mainly examined employees and customers separately, and as a result have sometimes overlooked how employees and customers influence each other over the course of one or multiple encounters. But Korschun and his co-authors contend that emotions during encounters can be contagious and tend to converge as pairs work closely together.

“We draw from the social psychology literature to show that interactions between employees and customers are shaped by how similar they are and by the degree of closeness or distance they feel comfortable with in their relationships,” says Korschun.

What the research suggests is that employees and customers can become engaged in a feedback cycle based on compatibilities and differences in their personalities. These cycles can be positive and lead to an enhanced experience for all parties, or they can be negative if the pair’s reactions to undesirable circumstances are synced.

The research has important implications for managers who are interested in encouraging positive outcomes from shared frontline experiences. First, managers need to be proactive in identifying moments during an encounter that can evoke emotional responses. “Map out the different things that can go on during [customer and employee] interactions so that you’re aware if there’s a stumbling block and how the two parties are going to interact and start to feed off each other,” Korschun says.

The next step is to pay attention to the personalities of employees and make an attempt to match them with customers they’ll interact positively with. Where possible, the researchers advise managers to give employees more autonomy in situations where positive interactions are likely. This helps encourage a virtuous cycle. In contrast, managers can curtail autonomy in potentially negative situations in order to keep problems from escalating.

Korschun’s paper titled Emotional Convergence in Service Relationships: The Shared Frontline Experience of Customers and Employees was published in the Journal of Service Research in February 2017

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